Calum’s Road

4 Oct 2011 in Dance & Drama, Highland, Showcase

Cumbernauld Theatre, 1 October 2011, and touring

WITHOUT telling anyone, the National Theatre of Scotland has mounted a mini-festival of the work of Gerry Mulgrew, the celebrated founder of Communicado.

By day, you can see a revival of his Tall Tales for Small People, an exuberant show for children (and adults with good taste) that the director first staged in 1995. By night, you can see Calum’s Road, Mulgrew’s latest work, performed by the same six-strong ensemble.

Iain Macrae and Finlay Welsh in Calum's Road (photo Richard Campbell)

Iain Macrae and Finlay Welsh in Calum's Road (photo Richard Campbell)

And what a special show it is. Based on the book of the same name by Roger Hutchinson, it tells the true story of Calum MacLeod, who grew so weary of the council’s failure to build a road on his native North Raasay that he set about building it himself. Stone by stone, he spent a decade laying a one-and-three-quarter mile route between Arnish, where he lived, and Brochel Castle. Eventually, the council acknowledged his efforts and surfaced the road.

It was a formidable, not to say foolhardy, task, and the first challenge for Mulgrew is how to create the impression of ten years’ hard labour on an Inner Hebridean island using only the resources of a studio theatre. One way he achieves it is in the continual flow of movement about Gordon Davidson’s set of small boxes, which the cast repeatedly spread out then gather, pile up then rearrange. According to his daughter, MacLeod was a man who never sat down and, indeed, it’s with a sense of alarm when we see actor Iain Macrae slumped in his wheelbarrow, finally exhausted.

The actors are supported by the back projections of Evanton-based video designer John McGeoch, who films Highland roads, ferry boats, island houses and painted portraits of the characters to enhance the reality of the story. It’s a technique that could easily have overwhelmed the production, but the images are simple enough not to be distracting and elemental enough not to usurp the theatrical imagination.

With strong musical input from Alasdair Macrae, it is a performance built around the ensemble even though it tells the story of such a solitary and single-minded endeavour. That’s because the repercussions of MacLeod’s enterprise are widespread. On one hand, the construction of the road is a monumental solo feat; on the other, it is a symbol of romantic futility that affects us all. To build a road single-handedly might seem impossible, but what is really impossible is keeping people living on the island.

The road is the grand gesture of a man who loves the landscape, culture and language he has grown up with. His adult daughter, played by Ceit Kearney, and her childhood sweetheart, played by Finlay Welsh, also feel that love but, having moved to the central belt, they can no longer be properly part of the place. Like the Gaelic language, the island is easier to love than commit to. It means the road is both awe-inspiring and tragic, a mighty accomplishment that failed in its primary aim to regenerate the island.

These contradictions, along with the evocation of island life in David Harrower’s excellent adaptation, help make the production rich, vivid, humane and sad.

© Mark Fisher, 2011